Opinion: Long Live the Out-House Movement (or Whatever You Want to Call It)

There’s been a lot of talk on Instagram, website comments, and our very own podcast these last few weeks about the term “in-house” as it applies to watch movements. This conversation, of course, is largely cyclical. We have it, as best I can tell, every two years or so. Normally it comes hot on the heels of a snafu of some kind. A brand will claim a movement is in-house, the community says “Not so fast!” and before you know it, we’re podding about it. A lot of times, but not every time, this involves Bremont, who actually had to apologize for calling the movement in their Wright Flyer pilot’s watch in-house when in fact it was a La Joux Perret caliber with some modifications. Yes, this was a thing that happened! It was all the way back in 2014, which now feels like a significantly more innocent time when we’d collectively believe a brand who told us a movement was in-house, as ludicrous as that might be. Things have changed a lot (we’re certainly a lot more skeptical) but there’s obviously still quite a bit of confusion out there, and no shortage of opinions. When this topic is inevitably debated periodically, it sometimes feels like we’re covering the same ground but with different players. 

I think the current round of the great in-house debate started in earnest with the under-the-radar release of the IWC Mark XX, which I wrote about here. This is a movement IWC describes as in-house, and I did too, as did many of my colleagues across the watch world who write and talk about these things for a living. Of course, IWC is part of the Richemont Group, a massive luxury goods holding company which counts movement manufacturer Val Fleurier among their many assets. The movement in the Mark XX, the Caliber 32111, is ostensibly made by Val Fleurier, and Val Fleurier in turn makes similar movements for other Richemont brands. 

The IWC Mark XX, with a movement made..in-house? In-group?

The problem here, if you see one at all, isn’t that IWC is calling a movement “in-house” when it’s in fact made by a company that is a corporate sibling. Insinuating that IWC is somehow being deceitful has a whiff of “It’s not champagne if it’s not made in the Champagne region of France.” Let’s just accept the fact that we live in a vast corporate hellscape where the company after the “@” symbol in your email address could be IWC, or Richement, or Val Fleurier, and it might not functionally matter that much at all. Watchmaking at this level is no longer a cottage industry, but one defined by boardrooms and an increasingly complex and incestuous intermingling of luxury brands that confuses even the most seasoned collectors and watch aficionados. 

I see the issue as one of transparency. IWC is free to call this movement whatever they want. In-house, out-house, in-group, or any other completely meaningless designation. What I, and I think other watch collectors, want to know is not how the brand defines it, but how and where it’s actually made, and by who. In fact, to simply say Val Fleurier “makes” the movement isn’t even enough. What does that really mean? Did they design it? Did they manufacture the parts? Who assembled it? Who applied the decorative finishing? Movement making is a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole, and diving down it, in almost every case, is going to reveal that brands define terms like “in-house” and “manufacture” in a somewhat elastic way. 

Another brand that comes up fairly frequently in these discussions is Tudor. Of course, Tudor comes up frequently in discussions about almost anything watch related, because they’re Tudor. That said, imagine for a moment that you’re a budding watch enthusiast, and you stumble onto Tudor’s website to check out the newly released Ranger. You’re interested in the movement, so you click into the section of the flashy landing page for Tudor’s new watch that details the movement specs. The MT5402 is referred to consistently as a Manufacture caliber. The italics, by the way, are not mine – that’s how Tudor styles that word throughout all of their copy. If you’re new to watches, or just not really thinking about what Tudor is telling you all that critically, you might think that “manufacture” (in italics) is just Tudor speak for “in-house.” And maybe it is – but what if I told you (or better yet, what if Tudor told you) that these movements are made by Kenissi, a company which doesn’t pass a control-F test on any Tudor page I could find. 

The new Tudor Ranger with a “manufacture” movement made by Kenissi

The Kenissi Manufacture can basically be thought of as Tudor’s own movement manufacturing arm. The company was created in 2016 to “oversee the development and production” of Tudor’s movements. So is a Tudor movement like the MT5402 “in-house”? I’d argue that of course it is. When you’re Tudor, and you’re enormous, you can create a totally separate entity to make brand new movements just for you, and call it whatever you’d like. It’s certainly more “in-house” than dialing up Sellita and asking them to replenish your supply. But again, it doesn’t really matter what it’s called, I just wish Tudor would tell us about Kenissi when they’re trying to sell me a watch. 

Because, frankly, it’s a pretty interesting story. Kenissi doesn’t just make movements for Tudor, but has partnered with Breitling and Chanel as well. Chanel, in fact, owns a stake in Kenissi, which I guess makes the movement in your Black Bay Fifty-Eight something of a co-production between Tudor and the French fashion house (things get even stranger when you consider that Chanel also has a minority stake in F.P. Journe). I don’t know about you, but I find it impressive that Tudor, a brand that simply didn’t exist in the United States for decades, now finds itself powerful enough to build out a sister company that can develop and produce complicated watch movements for a number of brands that are objectively of a very high quality. Yes, Tudor itself has a relationship with Rolex, the most powerful watch company on the planet by just about any measurement, but Tudor’s accomplishments and dominance in movement production via Kenissi are no less impressive. Why they never mention this as a feather in their cap is a mystery to me. 

This Norqain is also powered by a Kenissi made movement

I have a suspicion that most collectors are more concerned with getting a high quality movement than one that’s in-house anyway. As Zach W. pointed out on our podcast last week, high end manufacturers are perfectly capable of making in-house movements that break, don’t keep very good time, and prove to be generally unreliable. For that reason, I completely reject any in-house snobbery directed at ETA, Sellita, Soprod, and the like. The fact is, it’s incredibly difficult to produce a movement, and that goes for those that are made at scale in the tens of thousands, as well as calibers that are hand-crafted and meticulously decorated. There is skill and technical know-how involved at every level of movement making, and that’s something that watch brands should celebrate whether the caliber they’re using is coming right off the shelf, customized by a company like Kenissi or La Joux Perret, or something in between. 

Something happened in the watch world within the last decade or so that made us all fixate on “in-house” as an inherent good. Vertical integration, according to the conventional wisdom, is highly desirable, and a sign that a watch brand is doing things the right way and with a skill and a type of technical wizardry that a brand that needs to – gasp – buy a movement from a supplier doesn’t possess. In some cases, this conventional wisdom is correct, and there are a small handful of brands that do just about everything themselves with incredible craftsmanship. Far more often, however, putting the components of a watch together is something of a group exercise, involving multiple countries, manufacturers you’ve heard of, and manufacturers you almost certainly have not. In those cases, which make up the vast majority of watch production, we should appreciate not only the finished product and its component parts, but the decision making process at the top of the brand’s org chart that led to what I hope is the great watch you’ve wound up wearing. Think of a watch not so much as the final product of Brand X, but as a piece that’s been made up of expertly curated parts from people who really know what they’re doing. 

My favorite illustration of this concept is broken down by Brandon Moore in his review of the A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin for SJX about a year ago. Lange, as a brand, certainly places a premium on movement making, and the caliber running the Saxonia Thin is truly in-house by any reasonable definition of the term (Lange is even one of the few brands to make their own hairspring, a part that’s commonly outsourced by even the highest of high-end manufacturers). But this review was eye opening for me when I realized how much of the Saxonia Thin isn’t produced by Lange at all. Much of it, case and dial included, isn’t even made in Germany, but by Swiss suppliers (Efteor and Metalem, specifically). Does this detract from the impact of the Saxonia Thin? To me, it doesn’t at all. It’s the product of a recognition by Lange that they have limited resources, and for this particular watch, they’re throwing those resources into the movement. Their partners are experts in what they do, and capable of producing components to Lange’s high standards and specifications. In my estimation Lange should be applauded for finding synergies that work so well for them with specialty manufacturers. To that end, so should brands like Lorier, Monta, Farer, Brew, and so many other small independent brands who develop great relationships with suppliers at all price points. Their good taste and commitment to quality is why you wind up with a satisfying watch on your wrist, possibly for well under $1,000. They don’t make it, but they make sure it gets made well. 

I don’t expect that we’ve had the last conversation on the merits of in-house movements and the constantly shifting definitions of what the term even means. As long as brands want recognition for apparent vertical integration, there will be writers, commenters, and enthusiasts who question just how in-house a movement really is. That’s almost certainly a good thing, as it’s important to hold brands accountable for the claims that they make. What I hope for, and it’s probably a long shot, is that at some point in the distant future watch brands come to the realization that it’s OK that you can’t actually do everything on your own, and if you’re making great watches, customers will happily accept that at every turn. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.